Oscar Dominguez and his team at Darkfire Lighting Design have three decades of experience lighting many of network’s most-watched programs including Fear Factor, The Bachelorette, The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model, The Tyra Banks Show, Shark Tank, World of Dance and of course, the popular hit NBC talent competition series The Voice for which he is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction For A Variety Series. An Award Dominguez won in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Dominguez spoke to us the week before the Emmy’s ceremony to talk about passion for his profession, his beginnings, his dedicated work ethic and forming the perfect team to captivate audiences live and at home.
Jason: Can you share with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Oscar Dominguez: I wasn’t a great student in high school, I couldn’t pay attention so I departed. At the same time my dad was the proprietor of a Mexican restaurant in Van Nuys, California and about a block away was a very peculiar small sound stage where they broadcast America’s Top Ten and other projects and my dad asked the guys if I could come on. So they showed me around and I thought it was cool. I did some maintenance stuff, cleaned, swept, painted until a few weeks into it when one of the floor electricians didn’t show up and the guys said, ‘here’s a wrench, go climb up and hang this light’ and that’s where it started.
Jason: Can you provide a key instance where you realized that this was indeed the career for you?
Oscar Dominguez: I had dabbled in photography and was very interested in that medium and I developed a fundamental grasp of how light works and I realized how it affects one’s mood and that led me down this other path. Having an interest in that area was the initial thing and from there I became like a sponge and wanted to learn more, absorb and understand techniques and ‘how do I make this light do this and how do I make a room feel a certain way.’ Understanding that was the beginning of my wanting to experiment with things.
Jason: Can you tell us about some of the early projects you worked on?
Oscar Dominguez: One of the first larger scale things I did was a reboot of American Gladiators, which was a lot of fun. That was invigorating just from the sense of scale. One of my early TV jobs was on Fear Factor here in the US. That was a lot of fun because of how experimental we could be and we could behave a bit more theatrically and be liberal with colors and play with light and shadow. It ended up being a fantastic place to hone skills. The director J. Rupert Thompson was cool, open to ideas and super-collaborative. Working on that show was awesome but the one thing I couldn’t convey was how bad it smelled on set. It was something else.
Jason: From the extremes of Fear Factor you got involved with the first incarnations of The Bachelorette, which I’m sure was a much more pleasant smelling set yet provided more unique ways to light a show.
Oscar Dominguez: Those projects were very interesting as that point reality television wasn’t in its infancy but was early on and to approach The Bachelorette in a romantic, candlelit, golden, tones of blue was also so much fun to light.
Jason: What are some challenges you might face on a project? I imagine the challenges vary from show to show and each one offers a unique set of challenges.
Oscar Dominguez: I’ve been doing this now for 32 years and we had all kinds of challenges. There are the typical challenges of phoning up the vendor and asking ‘where’s the truck?’ and the answer will be ‘what truck?’ because of wrong dates listed or environmental challenges doing exterior projects such as concert stuff or Fear Factor. There are challenges with camera types. The key challenge is lack of information. Not being told what’s required on a day of filming. I can tell you there’s a lot of nights we’re sitting around the cocktail table telling war stories.
Jason: Do you light a project as a whole or do you light tailored to a specific individual, say, for example, a performer onstage during a taping of The Voice?
Oscar Dominguez: At that point it becomes situational. Using The Voice as an example where we’re trying to craft different pretty looks and sometimes there’ll be a thematic idea attached and I’ll look at it in the sense of trying to tell a story.
Jason: For your work on The Tyra Banks Show, when you light for an individual such as Tyra Banks, does it remain consistent throughout a season or are you encouraged to mix it up a little?
Oscar Dominguez: Again it’s situational. It depends on the gig. If it’s called for and you need to change it up or if you see that there’s room for improvement. Some of us get super tweaky and we can’t leave well enough alone. You can’t get so tweaky that you burn out your crew or the producers because you keep nibbling at things and drive people crazy. Like anything else, it’s balancing all things. Sometimes producers will want to establish a certain look and there should be no deviation from that look. And sometimes you have room to try something else and it’s welcome. You feel that part of it out.
Jason: I’d imagine Tyra Banks is a very collaborative person to work with.
Oscar Dominguez: She was a doll to work with and smart about her lighting. She’d want to do a piece in one place and I’d tell her ‘I can’t light you there in the method that I think you’d look good’ and she’d say ‘great. let’s move it.’ She was super collaborative with us and understood we had a gig to do while she looked her best on camera. She was very good about that and quite cognizant of good lighting. I had a very good working experience with her for sure.
Jason: On collaborators, what are some qualities or traits you look for in an individual looking to join your team at Darkfire Lighting Design?
Oscar Dominguez: I can tell you right now the biggest thing is to check your attitude at the door. True collaboration means we can sit and chat about stuff and you don’t get your feelings hurt. There has to be a chain of command, so you bring in other people to collaborate who have ideas to bring to table. The ability to be open, be humble, have a positive attitude towards the project and be team-oriented. I know it sounds super cheesy and corny, but it is that way. By maintaining a lean team that’s into the project I can take the extra pennies saved and put them on the screen and that’s important because your name’s attached to the project so it’s in your best interest to make sure that it looks good.
Jason: How has COVID-19 affected the way you work?
Oscar Dominguez: Because of Covid restrictions, it restricted us more from being onstage. The number of bodies allowed on a stage was limited so I stayed off the stage and it made me feel disconnected from projects, let’s use The Voice as an example, it was difficult to feel where things should go, feel the space out. Also, I wasn’t able to be in the control room any longer, so getting into the rhythm of that room was difficult because we were isolated. The lack of human interaction was hard.
Jason: How do you convey emotion through lighting?
Oscar Dominguez: Through color, light and darkness. You can make somebody feel fear, joy, you can capture a celebratory look and all these things in expressive moments. You can create a happy feeling using a high color temperature strobe everywhere and you can make lights look like fireworks. Or you can light something from a particular angle and give it a more ominous feel through shadow, by stretching shapes out to subtly change things. It’s no different from how nature does the same thing, where it gets colder towards the winter shadows get longer. Everything has that spookier feel, even in the daytime, with the shadows which are like those tentacles of doom coming to get you. That manipulation of light and shadow is how you convey that emotion. On top of that, you add color, which has a big effect on how people feel.
Jason: Do you learn from the audience in terms of what’s working and what doesn’t in terms of what their reactions are?
Oscar Dominguez: Yes! 100%. Sometimes it’s like we’ll have to create this big thing and while we may think it’s awesome, it may not resonate. I know we’re tailoring our cues more for the home audience but I know when we had a big studio audience you feel the visceral reaction and you go ‘woo! they like that,’ or maybe they don’t like something which they will let you know too [laughs}. Sometimes we get too ahead of ourselves and it’s too blinding and nobody can see anything. The audience is the audience in every sense, and you need to cater to them.
Jason: What is your reaction to the most recent Emmy nomination?
Oscar Dominguez: It’s always a joy, and it is an honor to be nominated because there is so much good work out there, there are so many craftspeople out there making beautiful pictures. And I don’t care who you are. When you hear you’ve been nominated, you get that little ‘woo-hoo’, that little thing in your belly. Being recognized by other people that do the same thing you do, it’s huge and I think you lose sight of that sometimes and not to sound corny but I still get butterflies and am delighted. It’s a huge thing for me. I feel like a little kid. We added a programmer to our team. Tiffany Spicer Keys, and it’s her first nomination, so I’m doubly excited this year.
Jason: What advice would you share with a young person starting out lighting their school holiday pageant and looking for their way into doing this work on a professional level?
Oscar Dominguez: I think respecting your craft and learning every aspect you can, familiarize yourself with it and experiment and that is the best piece of advice I can give anybody. Study. learn your craft and have a good work ethic which I think is paramount. Then you’re going to succeed. When you find something you love, you’re going to master it. It’s about respecting the craft, humility, getting in there and learning something every single day.
Learn more about Oscar and Darkfire Lighting Design at dfld.com.